“City of Angels,” with its compelling storyline and empathetic jazz-tinged score, showed the hard-boiled private-eye film noirs of the ’40s could be fodder for a hit tuner. Despite Scott Wentworth’s properly gritty book, overflowing with dead-on Chandleresque repartee, “Gunmetal Blues” is less successful. His efforts are defeated by an inappropriate, unimaginative, lightweight score by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler, which sounds like it belongs in a different show, and ultimately undermines the veracity of the characterizations. What does work is helmer Andrew Barnicle’s fast-paced, intuitive staging and the impressive perfs of a hard-working three-member ensemble.
“Gunmetal Blues” displays the accoutrements of the noir genre. Set primarily in a dimly lit bar/lounge, a solitary piano player (Jeffrey Rockwell) underscores the misadventures of world-weary trench-coated shamus Sam Galahad (Kevin Symons), still carrying a torch for a dame he met once a decade earlier. When the mysterious Blonde (Susan Wood) hires him to find that same dame, Sam is launched into a tantalizing series of misadventures and plot twists that do justice to the memory of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Along the way, Rockwell and Wood morph into all the colorful denizens of the city that either impede or assist Sam on his whiskey-soaked odyssey.
Getting in the way of this promising tale are the songs of Bohmler and Adler, especially coming out of the mouth of Sam. Symons impressively inhabits the persona of the hard-boiled, bleary-eyed gumshoe, but is thrown totally out of character when called upon to melodiously croon such nondescript ditties as “Facts” and the title tune.
In the program notes, Barnicle goes through a lot of explanation to justify the songs as “abstract narration for what is going in the hearts and minds of the characters,” but that doesn’t translate to what is happening onstage. When Symons sings, Sam disappears.
The score is a better fit for Rockwell, whose tacky-to-the-hilt Buddy is quite at home with a pair of tongue-in-cheek ditties. “Take a Break” comically sends the audience into the intermission, while “Buddy Toupee — Live” finds the shamelessly self-promoting piano man hawking his own album. Rockwell also impresses as he slides off the piano stool to assume a plethora of personas, including a dimwitted thug and the cheerfully seething, Irish-brogued police detective who is forever threatening to pull Sam’s license.
Wood is more than impressive as the many women in Sam’s life. The highlight of the production, musically and comically, is her turn as inebriated lounge singer Carol Indigo, who manages to stay on her feet just long enough to belt out a roof-raising rendition of the show’s best tune, “The Blonde Song.” Wood adorns her many characterizations with a captivating assurance.
Rockwell handles accompaniment chores throughout, assisted by an offstage trio of reeds (Jeff Driskill), percussion (Tom Bowe) and standup bass (Dana Decker). Although he is an accomplished pianist and accompanist, Rockwell’s arrangements for this instrumental quartet are jarringly simplistic and uninspired, further sabotaging a score that needs all the help it can get.
Impressively enhancing the film noir atmosphere of the production are John Berger’s sets, Paulie Jenkins’ lights, Drew Dalzell’s sound design and Dwight Richard Odle’s costumes. Odle deserves special praise for the eye-catching frocks that decorate Wood’s many onstage incarnations.